6 Reasons Why Calvin & Hobbes Still Works Decades Later
If you made it through the first two columns – here and here -- which could be summed up by a mean person as “what’s a newspaper” and “who’s this old guy who used to draw cartoons in newspapers,” first of all: hi Mom and Dad! Second of all: congrats, now we get to over-analyze comics! That sentence might sound sarcastic, but I sincerely cannot convey how excited I am. Apologies to my editors if the next three columns are longer than Moby Dick.
We’ve talked about why Calvin and Hobbes was important in its era, how it got such a devoted audience, and its enigmatic creator. But the question of why, in an era when newspapers can comfortably be referred to as “bygone” and the comic’s publication date is firmly “yesteryear,” why oh why are we still talking about Calvin and Hobbes? Put shortly: strip still hits. Even now, it’s hilarious and poignant and fun. Even as I’ve firmly decamped from the “Calvin” stage of life and migrated to the “Calvin’s Dad” stage of life. Here’s why:
The Scope of Imagination Is Impressive and The World Is Boundless
Calvin’s imaginative world goes beyond having Hobbes as a living, breathing, sometimes homicidal-psycho-jungle-catting best friend. He inhabits the panels as Tyrannosaurs and Pteradons, as ace pilot Spaceman Spiff, private eye Tracer Bullet, and as various transmogrified things. Calvin’s not genre exclusionary with his fantasies, he’ll go from Humphrey Bogart to Harrison Ford in a blink. What’s rad is that for most of these flights of fancy, the entire artistic style of the strip changes. Readers are fully immersed in Calvin’s weirdo brain because that’s all that’s on the page.
One of my favorite examples of this comes when we’re first introduced to Tracer Bullet. The series starts out with your basic wacky scenario: Calvin can’t get his hair to comb right, so Hobbes offers to cut it, Calvin ends up looking like he has mange. Wanting to duck trouble with his mom, he dons a fedora at the dinner table.
Now, any other strip or sitcom would follow through naturally: Calvin’s parents make him take his hat off at the table, they have wacky reactions (perhaps with some of those fun symbols newspapers use that’s somehow more *#&!ing polite than swearing like a normal person), Calvin and Hobbes argue while they’re in punishment. And that’s basically what happens, series over, easy as a first-grade spelling test with half the narrative effort.
Except right in the middle of the series, we slam the brakes on “wacky kid stuff” and shift, stylistically and in dialogue, to spoofing film noir. That’s Watterson pushing the limits of the tools of the medium. Sure, the latter seasons of Archer can genre-jump each year because they have a whole season to build those settings. A newspaper strip gets four panels to immediately establish a world and aesthetic (Tracer Bullet’s shadowy office of bourbon and guns) while also keeping one foot in the reality of the strip (Calvin’s mom making him take the hat off at the table). It’s genuinely impressive to expect your readers to follow this leap, and then do it with multiple different imaginative worlds.
Calvin Avoids Main Character Syndrome
One reason it’s easy to believe Calvin going off in different worlds is that he doesn’t have God mode on in his fantasies. I don’t know about you, but as a kid, I was never really the best at things unless I was playing alone. Competent, sure, it’s not like I didn’t have friends or sucked at sports or school, but the only basketball games I was taking game-winning shots in was on my own driveway, y’know? And yes, Michael Jordan was passing me that ball, because in my fantasies, eight-year-old me could be the best player on the Bulls. Anyone who’s ever created a character on a video game knows this feeling.
Calvin, though? Look at this strip:
If he’s trying to be Maverick in Top Gun, he’s going down like Goose. His jet's throttle break off in his hand. The ejector seat — which by kid logic should be a cool explosive big bang heroic exit only Fighter Pilot Calvin can pull off — is also stuck. Then, in the last panel, defeat: “stupid model.” Genius. Calvin’s escaping the reality of his frustrations putting together the model, but still has the frustrations of not having a jet that doesn’t suck. His fantasy has the same problem, he just looks cooler as it happens.
This keeps Calvin relatable to the reader — nobody roots for Goliath and there are few punchlines in success — but also says something about his character. He dreams of a bigger world, he even dreams of being a hero, but he’s pretty grounded/realistic about where his status in life is. His fantasies allow him to temporarily get one over on his parents, teacher, or bullies, but not really. That tells us something about a six-year-old with no human friends and an overactive imagination, but the strip is so whimsical we’re not thinking about how maybe this kid’s depressed or crying for help. If he is, it doesn’t manifest on the page, not explicitly. Calvin seems happy, if a little annoyed by stuff that annoys a lot of six-year-olds. He also finds solace in what a lot of six-year-olds think is cool: dinosaurs, loud vehicles, playing outside, and yeah, a stuffed animal. And we get to come along his imaginative ride. Which leads nicely into my next point:
Reminder For Parents To Chill Out
Re-reading Calvin and Hobbes as a dad, I really struggled trying to decide if Calvin’s a bad kid or not. I was inspired by Calvin a lot — tigers were my favorite animal growing up, and my friends and I once turned a rocky, wooded hill behind my house into a snowboard mountain by taking the trucks off our skateboards. My own four-year-old reminds me of Calvin — he’s also got an adorable anti-authority streak and spends big chunks of his day trying to climb things he can only fall off of. And honestly? Calvin’s parents’ bemused, zen-like encouragement of Calvin’s friendship with Hobbes is an achievement by itself. But does a kid being high energy mischievous and a little more into the fantasy world than reality make them a bad kid?
Sure, Calvin does some bad stuff: he’s a terrible student, his “girls have cooties” attitude could atrophy into MRA-level misogyny if he doesn’t grow up between elementary and high school, and he once tricked his babysitter, Rosalyn, into think he’d snuck outside the house, no doubt giving her the blood pressure of a chain smoking Nathan’s hot dog eating contestant. There’s definitely a lack of model citizen behavior. But how much of Calvin is a kid being a kid?
There’s no denying Calvin is a handful. Having a handful kid is challenging. Sometimes you, the parent, wonder if the smallest deviation from normativity means trouble later in life, or sometimes you’re just embarrassed if your kid says something out of pocket to an adult they don’t know. And sometimes, like in this strip, a $200 accident happens.
But Calvin’s parents always seem to take everything in stride. They get aggravated, they lose their patience, and they probably spend some chunks of time wondering what life would be like with a dachshund instead. But at the end of the day, the four of them are family (yes, I’m including Hobbes). Know what that sounds like? Every parent in the entire world.
And when you’re a rock-solid, stable family like the Calvin-Hobbeses seem to be, you mess with each other from time to time.
Calvin’s dad's greatest joys in life are biking and telling his child the sun sets in Arizona because it’s the size of a quarter and goes out at night. Calvin’s Mom, in a total veteran move, pulls “I asked you first” right after asking if her husband regretted becoming a parent. These are people who clearly laugh together, even if it’s largely off-page. Watterson, for his part, says he regrets having the strip focus so much on Calvin’s mom’s impatient side, hinting at a more loving family life than is maybe shown in the moments Calvin is setting a snowman blockade around the family car.
So is Calvin, the most fearsome terror of the funny pages not actually surnamed “The Menace,” a bad kid? I say no. He’s too thrilled by life, he’s got too fascinating a mind, and Watterson, per the Tenth Anniversary Book, says “I wouldn’t want Calvin in my house, but on paper, he helps me sort through my life and understand it.” Children have a way of clarifying things.
It Is Still Funny
Comedy ages like a trash bag full of old food left out in Bear Forest on Hibernation-Is-Over Day. Humor changes, sensibilities change, and something from 27 years ago is probably going to make you laugh because you remember laughing at it 27 years ago, not because your belly’s for-realsies rumblin’. And since when I picture Cracked’s readership, I only picture the most impossibly cool, intelligent, and beautiful sophisticates imaginable, I will not try to pick a “proof that Calvin and Hobbes is funny” example designed to appeal to all of your elegant tastes. I’m just picking a strip I find really funny, 27+ years later.
I’m not going to explain what I find funny about this strip. I’m not going to explain which moments make me giggle, but know that it’s more than one. I will tell you I’ve got a pretty good melody working for that song in the lower panel if I can only teach my son the backup harmony part. Lastly, know that if you don’t find it funny, the part of your soul where happiness happens is broken. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
I will say I love any Calvinball strip. I love the aspects of friendship this strip illustrates. I love the detail of remembering something they did last time they played Calvinball because I have friends whom I love who absolutely remember pickup basketball stats for years (hi, Kevin and Julian!). I love the brief allusion to Opposite Day because it’s a concept that will never die. I love the late allusion to wickets because I’m pretty sure Calvinball is less complex than cricket. And I love this strip partially because my dad to this day laughs at “the score is still Q to 12” for any reason he can think of and I wanted to include it in this column for him. (Hi, Dad.)
“A Nauseous Nocturne:” Watterson Took Pride In His Work
Calvin and Hobbes ran from 1985-1995, meaning it straddled a decade defined by excess materialism and another decade where Nirvana was the biggest band and principled stances against selling out were the norm. Bill Watterson, in The Tenth Anniversary Book, says “When cartoon characters appear on countless products, the public inevitably grows bored and irritated with them, and the appeal and value of the original work are diminished.” Now today, in the age of influencers and the gig economy and monetizing your passions, that might sound ridiculous. Why not sell some T-shirts and buy a speedboat?
Maybe it’s my own book fetish, but there is something special about a finite C&H collection. I like holding these books in my hands, flipping through the pages and anticipating the color pop when a Sunday strip comes out. It takes a daily newspaper strip, something as regular to readers as their own family members, and turns it into a singular, complete artistic project (which Watterson was interested in). The collections are snapshots of where the strip was at that moment. The comprehensive volume of C&H is a decade-long snapshot of everything Bill Watterson had to say creatively at that time. With these books, I can sit in an impossibly ornate Victorian-style style library (the kind with wheelie ladders) wearing a smoking jacket and pouring snifters of Scotch while poring over the definitive volume of a feral six-year-old and his philosophical tiger. I like that feeling.
The value of a book collection shows itself with “Nauseous Nocturne.” Watterson wrote a 78-line poem and did extra paintings by hand and in watercolor, all in order to “justify ’s existence.” It’s a special little bonus you only get in The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes.
Knowing that the extra effort was taken, extra art was created just to give a bonus to the reader — I think that rules. It’s like bonus features on a DVD or going up a tier on a Patreon subscription. It proves Watterson gives a fig about what he does as a singular project, rather than an aging and toothless golden goose who’s been doing meth while the eggs were gestating. One would not dare Calvin and Hobbes minus Calvin this strip.
The Final Strip Is The Thesis
In the last Calvin and Hobbes ever published, Calvin asserts that “it’s a magical world,” so right away we’re going to take that apart.
What evidence does the world have to offer in its own defense? Climate change is here and people are already dying in heat waves. Whole countries will sink into the sea soon. Fascism is on the rise worldwide as the neoliberal order collapses under income inequality. America’s garnishing this with some theocracy, as an unelected council of ancient nerds in wizard robes unilaterally destroy the rights of women and endanger LGBTQ people, BIPOC, and other marginalized groups. Transphobia is killing people and breaking up families. COVID-19 is still very much a danger. War is everywhere and worse, war is big business. Magical world? Is Calvin Dick Cheney?
Yeah, I’ve expanded my newspaper reading beyond comics and sports pages in the last 20 years. My once and future catalog on this website may be full of saccharine musings on dad life and articles answering desperate questions like “ain’t science weird?” and “don’t the X-Men cheat at sports?” but trust me, I read the news. I’m scared and miserable all the time. Wanna know how politically powerful I feel right now? I supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. All you “I can’t picture having kids because of climate change” people? I hear you, share your concerns, and I have a kid. It’s terrifying out there.
But recently, with more than a little encouragement from my wife and therapist (different people, men everywhere take note), I’ve started trying to see the bright side in life. “Let’s go exploring,” Calvin says, and I’ve been taking long walks and reading about the history of my neighborhood. “The world looks brand new,” Hobbes marvels, and my family grew tomatoes and marigolds in the backyard this summer. Thinking about how bad things are all the time is a miserable way to go through life. Especially when your job is the very powerful “internet comedy writer/poet/dad.” I’m not saying “give up trying” or “stop and smell the roses” or worse “have you tried not being depressed?” I still read the news. I’m still politically active. And yes, I have the privilege of being a cis het white man with an income where I’m not rich but I sweat less than I used to. I’m acutely aware of how much more awful my life could be.
But there’s value, too, in experiencing joy and celebrating what makes life worth living. Have you ever eaten dinner outside for no reason other than a toddler told you it’s sunny out? I did that yesterday, and it ruled. There’s value in seeing the world as a magical place worth exploring, where food can come alive (not in the sense that Calvin’s usually does), where tigers can be best friends, T-Rexes can fly F-14s, snowmen are Cronenberg movies, and the Yukon is just a wagon ride away. There’s value in transmogrifying a cardboard box into a Transmogrifier for an afternoon. And, as Watterson makes very clear in the Tenth Anniversary Book and other collections, there’s value in trying hard and actually caring about your work.
Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago with a child who has Calvin tendencies and a cat too fat to be Hobbes. He co-hosts The Line Break podcast and is one-half of b and the shipwrecked sailor. Send him Calvin and Hobbes strips on Twitter.
Top image: Andrews McMeel Publishing